Tuition will go up by 5.5 percent on University of Wisconsin campuses this fall under a budget approved Thursday that protects key academic programs and services.
During a meeting at UW-Milwaukee, the 18-member Board of Regents voted unanimously for the increase as part of a $5.6 billion operating budget for the system of 13 four-year universities and 13 two-year colleges.
Regents said they had no choice but to approve the increase, given what they called a shortage of resources to pay for higher education.
"It's difficult to look at a 5.5 percent tuition increase as being fair to the parents of our students, particularly working families," said Regent John Drew. But he added, "Right now I don't see an alternative to this tuition increase, so I'm supporting it."
The 5.5 percent increase applies to undergraduate students from Wisconsin attending 11 of the 13 universities, ranging from $383 at UW-La Crosse to $295 at campuses in Green Bay, Parkside, River Falls, Stevens Point and Superior. Students from out of state will face the same dollar increases.
Increases at UW-Madison ($638) and UW-Eau Claire ($595) are higher as those campuses phase in tuition surcharges.
University officials said roughly 40,000 students from families that earn less than $60,000 per year are expected to receive enough increases in state financial aid to offset the tuition increase. Tuition at the two-year colleges, which enroll nearly 14,000 students, will also be frozen for the fourth straight year.
The tuition increases will cover the rapidly increasing costs of health and retirement benefits for UW employees and help fund the system's Growth Agenda, a plan to increase the number of four-year degree holders in Wisconsin.
The increase will help protect key instructional and support services, helping avoid an increase in class sizes and reductions in the number of faculty and classes offered, said UW System budget official Freda Harris.
Regent Aaron Wingad, a student at UW-Eau Claire, said he would love to oppose the tuition increase but doing so would lead to harmful cuts.
"I believe this budget does do a reasonable job of spreading the burden of our poor financial situation among students, faculty and programs," he said. "I do feel this is a responsible way to move forward."
While the regents were unanimous, a group of students from UW-Milwaukee stood in the back of the room with signs protesting the increase. One of them, Dion Peregoy, a 20-year-old sophomore, said students "are sick of having their tuition raised," especially during an economic downturn.
UW System President Kevin Reilly acknowledged the increase was difficult given that "so many families continue to feel the financial squeeze." But he noted that tuition at the universities remained below tuitions at comparable universities and that increases in financial aid should keep them affordable.
For the second straight year, students from families earning less than $60,000 will receive grants from the state to offset the cost of the tuition hike. About 13,000 students received the grants last year.
Another roughly 27,000 lower-income students are expected to receive the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant this year, and funding for that program is going up by $3.3 million. That means 1,800 more students should get grants compared to last year, when 7,400 students were turned away after the program ran out of money.
What's more, the maximum federal Pell Grant award for low-income students is expected to rise by $200, Reilly said.
"All in all, these are very important real steps to ensure we back up our commitments to provide a high-quality UW education that remains accessible and affordable," he said.